One of the reasons Neon Genesis Evangelion stands as one of anime’s biggest cultural icons is the boldness of its framing and shot composition. Nothing that came before it and very little that came after conveys quite as many things as Evangelion does in the dynamic composition of its space. Most vividly this is seen in the construction of Shinji’s space, cold and distant by default but veering on tense and claustrophobic in moments of conflict. In the first episode of Evangelion alone there’s a lot to pick at in the way Shinji is framed, and we’re going to do just that.
Let’s begin with the first altercation between Misato and Shinji. During their conversation the topic comes up of Shinji meeting his estranged father, Gendo, at which point we see the frame swell towards his face. Suddenly the scene cuts to silence, we get brief shots of his traumatic flashbacks to being abandoned and then cut back to reality with the crashing sound of the train cars.
While conversing with just Misato we see that Shinji is generally composed outside of that brief moment, but things start to change when he has more company in the presence of Ritsuko. With two adults physically looming over him he starts to withdraw into the instruction book he was given by Misato, even as their eyes are on him talking of him as the third child. Ritsuko snaps him back with her personal greeting, prompting him to timidly raise his head from the book and respond with a bewildered “Huh? Sure”. Suffice to say he doesn’t want to be there.
This is even more potent in the next scene involving them. While Misato and Ritsuko engage in business talk we see them as shadows hanging off the frame. Shinji is the focal shadow in the middle of the shot, appearing even smaller physically than the previous scene and looking downward again at the instruction book as Misato and Ritsuko talk over his head.
Shinji reunites with his estranged father for the first time in three years, but whatever emotional validation he seeked is quickly crushed by the deliberate physical distance of his high vantage point. Shinji gives him a look of sadness and resentment, which then cuts to Gendo smirking at the prospect of his new “test subject”. It’s worth noting that Gendo’s eyesight is ommitted from the frame, and we only see Shinji’s face from the monitors of the side. The complete lack of intimacy between father and son is palpable. Ritsuko promptly orders Shinji to pilot Unit 01, to which Misato objects. As the two argue Shinji is once again rendered an insignificant physical presence in between them, and even more so compared to the looming face of Unit 01. This is something far bigger than himself, and all he can do is give that downward glazed over expression once again.
Shinji retaliates towards his father, the towering speck of black, asking why he was even sent there. He responds bluntly over the speaker: “You know exactly why”. The frame cuts close to Shinji’s face with tears welling in his eyes as he cries “I thought you didn’t need”, then cuts back to Gendo as he matter of factly states “I called you because I have a need for you”. Shinji continues to plead, just a powerless speck from down below with the upper body of the Evangelion continuing to look over.
Shinji, just a series of monitors reflecting off his tinted glasses, is scolded by his father who firmly states “If you’re going to pilot it, do it now and quickly. If not, leave!” We see quick cuts around the room to show all eyes on Shinji, and then back to Shinji overpowered by the size of Unit 01’s eye alone. Misato crouches down to Shinji’s level and asks directly why he came there. He looks away, confronted by the question and the physical closeness of Misato. As the conversation becomes visually claustrophobic she pleads with Shinji not to run away from his father or himself. It then cuts to an even more claustrophobic angle behind Shinji as he exclaims he can’t do it buries his face out of sight. We go straight from there to a distance shot of Shinji and Misato alongside Ritsuko, the tension spreading outwards as the scene goes silent.
Then everything goes back to business, and Shinji is left behind in the shadows. It appears he’s given up, until he’s confronted with the state that Rei is in and finds himself with her blood on his hands. With that striking image ingrained in him he tells himself he mustn’t run away. And for now he’s made a commitment.
Neon Genesis Evangelion continues to be a confronting and vivid work of art. Its dense cinematic language paints the portraits of its broken characters in painful detail, making it a timelessly haunting and intimate series. In this one episode it fully moulds the image of Shinji Ikari that would run through the entire series, one that anime fandom won’t soon forget.